Colourful quilting & embroidery: an interview with Jo Avery

21 February 2022
Jo Avery and 'Doodle hoop' design Left: Jo Avery – photograph by Jonathan Avery. Right: 'Doodle hoop' by Jo Avery.
Get to know Jo Avery, artist, quilt and embroidery designer, maker and teacher as she shares advice, inspiration, her proudest stitching moment to-date and how her book, Modern Crewel Embroidery came to be…

How did you discover your love of embroidery and quilting? 

I spent a lot of my childhood sewing with my big sister Jane, especially soft toys. When I was ten years old Jane showed me how to sew patchwork hexagons together (what we would now call EPP). 

Much later when I started living with my husband and making a home for myself, I remembered how much I’d enjoyed stitching those hexagons and so I bought some templates and fabric and started making my first quilt. On that same shopping trip I bought a wooden embroidery hoop but it actually took me many years to start embroidering. 

Hexagons embroidery design in a hoop by Jo Avery

Photo by C&T Publishing and Estefany Gonzales

In 2011 I started my craft studio and store and started teaching sewing, quilting and crochet. I had requests to teach embroidery, too so I started experimenting myself. I was very quickly smitten and have been embroidering ever since. 

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Your designs are fresh and full of colour! What advice would you give embroiders and quilters who want to incorporate more colour into their work? 

Trust your instincts. Colour is very subjective and the colours that appeal to me may not appeal to you so don’t try to get out of your comfort zone too much. It’s really important to make what you love so choose colours that are calling out to you. 

Also, when you’re choosing colours to go together in a project think about the tone more than the colour. By this I mean how much grey is mixed with the pure hue. A saturated bright colour will not sit well beside a muted grungy colour. If you keep your tones even and balanced you can use all sorts of different colours together.

Jo Avery embroidery designs

What inspires you and your work? 

My home here at Shangri-La Farm, just outside Edinburgh, inspires my work more than anything else. We bought this seven-acre field with a bungalow and barn attached 12 years ago and set about planting thousands of trees and re-wilding it. Now I have the daily delight of walking through my birch and hazel woods and observing every minute change in nature and the seasons. Every day I’m inspired by what I see and come back with a new idea!  

'Flower Journey' hoop & closeup by Jo Avery

'Flower Journey' hoop & closeup by Jo Avery

For more ‘Flower Power’, have a go at Jo’s wildflower meadow project in Stitch issue 135! 

Flower Power embroidery design by Jo Avery

Buy the issue

Tell us about your book ‘Modern Crewel Embroidery’… What made you choose this technique in particular? 

I’ve always loved taking traditional quilting techniques and designs and giving them a modern twist – it’s something that keeps me interested and my ideas fresh. I wanted to try the same approach with embroidery, too. 

I got a taste for crewelwork when I was part of a group that stitched a panel for The Great Tapestry of Scotland and though I went back to using cotton for embroidery afterwards I really missed stitching with wool. Using wool for embroidery (the word ‘crewel’ simply means embroidery with wool) adds an extra soft raised aspect to the texture and it’s especially forgiving for beginners as it fills so easily and doesn’t show imperfections as much as cotton. I wrote Modern Crewel Embroidery to explore stitching with wool in more depth and inspire others to give it a try. 

Modern Crewel Embroidery book cover

Modern Crewel Embroidery book cover by C&T Publishing and Estefany Gonzales 

My approach was to take the idea of a sampler (a way to show as many different stitches as possible) but use shapes in a modern graphic style and fill these with the stitches to emphasise the wool texture. I also took inspiration from my other craft loves with samplers based on patchwork, quilting and applique patterns and shapes. The result is 15 sampler designs which provide opportunities for mindful and soothing stitching with ideas to make your embroideries into a range of projects from pots to pouches to pincushions.

Embroidered hoop and fabric pot by Jo Avery

Photos by C&T Publishing and Estefany Gonzales Jo Avery 

What’s been your proudest project to date? 

I think it would be both of my Temperature projects. The first was a quilt and the second a crewel embroidery. I started the quilt just after the first lockdown and the daily practice of recording the temperature and then stitching a little applique block was so helpful through that challenging period. The idea is to allocate colours of fabric and thread to a range of temperatures and then use these and a daily record of the temperature to create your project. I enjoyed making the quilt so much that I started a Temperature embroidery for 2021. I’ve now embarked on a Temperature crochet blanket!

What do you enjoy most about running workshops and retreats? 

I think my answer will be different now than it would have been pre-pandemic as I’ve had two years with no physical retreats at all. So, I’d now say that I enjoy being with other people the most! I’ve really missed hanging out with my fellow crafters in real life. 

We managed to switch to virtual retreats over the last two years which has been a wonderful stop gap and had many advantages but it doesn’t compare to meeting in-person. I organise these with my two quilting best friends Lynne and Karen (we are The Thread House), so as well as enjoying being with our retreaters, we also get to spend time together. I do find teaching very rewarding but I have to say that the best bit will be the glass of wine and some good crack at the end of the day!

Patchwork minis by Jo Avery

Do you have any top stitching tips – especially when it comes to achieving detail? 

With embroidery it’s important to slow down and be patient. It’s a much more exacting craft than quilting. You can hurry through a quilt and still get a good result but there just isn’t the same space to hide with embroidery and your slapdash stitches will show! So just take you time, it’s all about the process not the finished item. Enjoy the journey and don’t always be in a rush to finish things.

For a more technical tip I always turn my needle around when ‘whipping’ stitches and go into the stitch with the eye end rather than the point. This will save you catching your linen and threads as you go through each stitch.

Is there a tool or piece of equipment you wouldn't be without? 

I wouldn’t be without Aurifil thread. It fulfils all my needs for both quilting and embroidery with a fantastic range of thread weights and shades. I’m now a certified educator for Aurifil and love sharing my enthusiasm with others through lectures and workshops. It was discovering that a double strand of Aurifil 12wt wool was a similar weight to crewel wool that really started me on my Modern Crewel Embroidery journey and I now have two wool thread collections available from them. The best bit about using their 12wt wool thread for crewel embroidery is the extra fine detail you can get using just one strand. It also has acrylic mixed with the wool which makes it stronger and smoother.

What would we find you stitching in your spare time? 

You would find me knitting socks or crocheting shawls. These are my go-to comfort crafts. They’re what I call ‘mindless’ in that I can switch off and just stitch away without having to concentrate. I find it very difficult to sit down to rest without something to do with my hands – it’s actually much more restful for me to knit or crochet than to sit still and do nothing! So these two things are my treat to myself when all my work sewing is done.

Find out more

See more of Jo’s projects in Stitch magazine… You’ll be Tote’ally On-Trend with her project in issue 118 – a felt applique and wool pomegranate design on a tote bag or get stuck into Peek-a-boo in issue 130 – another wool design of a peacock hiding in the midst of intertwined tendrils and flowers. 

Instagram: @joaverystitch
Facebook: /joaverystitch

Meet more inspiring embroiderers, including Jenny Adin-Christie and Stacey Chapman, or go back to basics with our hand embroidery guide to getting started

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